Little Tokyos Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Urban enclaves provided a source of social and economic stability for Japanese immigrants, despite the fact that the difficulty of finding employment led many toward rural and agricultural pursuits. The cultural conservatism fostered within these enclaves helped deepen the gap between Issei, or first-generation immigrants, and the fast-changing national culture of Japan. It also deepened the gap between Issei and Nisei, the second-generation immigrants.

Little Tokyos, or “Japantowns,” arose in cities and towns across the United States for reasons that reflected the natural needs of a new immigrant population. Their greatest concentration occurred along the West Coast. The continued robust existence of these enclaves into the 1930’s and early 1940’s, however, was partly the result of the sometimes severe racial prejudice and discrimination against Asians, and specifically the Japanese, that prevailed in the United States during the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries.Ethnic enclaves;Little TokyosLittle TokyosJapanese immigrants;Little TokyosIssei;and ethnic enclaves[ethnic enclaves]Ethnic enclaves;Little TokyosLittle TokyosJapanese immigrants;Little Tokyos[cat]ETHNIC ENCLAVES;Little Tokyos[03280][cat]CITIES AND COMMUNITIES;Little Tokyos[03280][cat]EASTASIAN IMMIGRANTS;Little Tokyos[03280]Issei;and ethnic enclaves[ethnic enclaves]

Among the influences leading to the formation of Little Tokyos, the dormitory-style boardinghouses run by early Japanese had particular importance. In Seattle, Washington;Japanese immigrantsSeattle, for example, sixty-five such boardinghouses were in operation by 1905. In addition to providing welcoming living quarters for new arrivals, these houses provided centers of operation for keiyaku-nin, the Japanese contractors who acted as agents between immigrant laborers and American railroad, farm, and cannery employers.

Shop in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo that was forced to sell out its entire stock before its proprietor was sent to an internment camp during World War II.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Although the enclaves proved important for community reasons, the tendency of many Japanese immigrants to work at agricultural occupations encouraged their moving away from urban areas. The Nisei tendency to distance themselves from their Japanese heritage, moreover, worked against the long-term success of the enclaves as active communities. The enclaves’ existence remained strong up to the time of World War II, however, due to prejudicial land-ownership policies in California;Japanese immigrantsCalifornia and elsewhere, and also to the difficulty Nisei encountered in obtaining jobs elsewhere, even when possessing college degrees. A large percentage of Nisei ended up working for their parents, temporarily stemming the flow of populace away from the enclaves.

Little Tokyo, Los Angeles

The Japanese Los Angeles;Little Tokyoenclave located a few blocks south of the Los Angeles city hall became the one most strongly associated with the “Little Tokyo” name, although it was also called “J-Town.” Founded during the 1890’s, it had a resident population of some 30,000 Japanese Americans at its peak.

The equivalent enclave in San FranciscoSan Francisco;Japanese immigrants was usually called Nihonmachi“Nihonmachi,” or “Japantown.” In the United States as a whole, forty-three Japantowns came into existence before the United States entered World War II in 1941. That number included small, rural enclaves. The enclaves provided important centers for Japanese-language schools, newspapers, Buddhist temples, Christian churches, and, in a few communities, hospitals.

Enclaves were of importance not only for the mutual economic support but for nurturing a nascent Japanese American culture. The literary magazine Leaves, for example, was the work of Los Angeles Nisei, as was the Sunday literary supplement, in English, of Japanese daily Kashu Mainichi. Theater;Japanese AmericanAmateur theater also thrived, with groups including the Little Tokyo Players in Los Angeles.

In contrast to the forward-thinking Nisei, the Issei;and ethnic enclaves[ethnic enclaves]Issei developed a mode of life within the Japanese enclaves based on their memories of traditional Japanese life that was already becoming outmoded in Japan itself. This conservatism among the Issei led to a growing gap not only between Issei culture and Japanese national culture, but also between Issei and Nisei attitudes toward life in America. By 1930, the Nisei constituted a significant percentage of the Japanese American population, and outnumbered the Issei in California;Japanese immigrantsCalifornia. Given that the Nisei were more inclined to pursue assimilation into American culture, however difficult it was to achieve, this demographic shift further worked against the expansion of Japantowns.

With Japanese American internment;and ethnic enclaves[ethnic enclaves]the forced removal of Japanese Americans from coastal areas in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the continued existence of most U.S. Japantowns was rendered nearly impossible. Promises that personal property of internees would be safeguarded during their internment often proved empty. In Los Angeles;Little TokyoLos Angeles, a reported three thousand African Americans moved into housing vacated by Japanese internees in Little Tokyo in July, 1943, tripling their ranks as the war progressed, and leading to the neighborhood’s being rechristened “Bronzeville.” Although the 1943 Little Tokyo crisis related to ethnic conflict, it involved non-Japanese residents. Peaceful race relations later would mark African Americans;and Japanese immigrants[Japanese immigrants]Japanese and African American interactions, after the incarcerated Japanese began returning.

The wartime propaganda filmFilms;wartime propaganda titled Little Tokyo, USA, gave the “Little Tokyo” name nationwide currency, and created an association between the ethnic enclaves and subversive politics. The Hollywood film mixed actual newsreel footage with invented action in portraying Japanese Americans as sources of treachery against the United States, even while using actors of miscellaneous Asian descent to portray Japanese Americans.

Resettlement policies in the wake of World War II led to the intentional geographical dispersal of large numbers of Japanese Americans, upon their release from prison camps. This dispersal accelerated the integration of the Nisei into larger American society and acted as a further element in the diminution of importance of the Japantowns in Japanese American life.

By the early twenty-first century, only three officially designated “Japantowns” still existed. These included Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, which was declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1995; Japantown, San Francisco; and Japantown, San Jose, California.Ethnic enclaves;Little TokyosLittle TokyosJapanese immigrants;Little Tokyos

Further Reading
  • Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988. Solid overview of the immigration histories of the two Asian immigrant groups.
  • Hosokawa, Bill. Nisei: The Quiet Americans. New York: William Morrow, 1969. Written by an important Japanese American journalist, this book provides a broadly inclusive, fact-filled portrait of an American generation and remains a definitive study.
  • Lyman, Stanford Morris. Chinatown and Little Tokyo: Power, Conflict, and Community Among Chinese and Japanese Immigrants in America. Millwood, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press, 1986. Illuminating comparison of Chinese and Japanese immigrant populations, documenting their differences of cultural outlook and the impact this had on the assimilation of each group into American society.
  • Takahashi, Jere. Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997. Examination of the complicated relationship between first-, second-, and third- (Sansei) generations of Japanese Americans.
  • Yoo, David K. Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture Among Japanese Americans of California, 1924-49. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Valuable account that provides a detailed examination of life in Japantowns, with notable focus on the press.

Alien land laws

Anti-Japanese movement

Ethnic enclaves

Japanese American press

Japanese immigrants

Los Angeles

Settlement patterns

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